eCensus: Australian Bureau of Statistics Web Based Population Census Form


  1. Introduction
  2. Web Browser
  3. eCensus Instructions
  4. eCensus Home Page
  5. eCensus Form
  6. Household Page

    See Also

  7. Other Information Technology
  8. Home


The 2006 Australian population census was held on Tuesday 8 August. In addition to a paper form distributed to each household, for the first time the Australian Bureau of Statistics provided a web based option. Residents had the option of using the web based form in place of the paper one. In documentation for the web based form, the ABS emphasized that it had been designed for access by the disabled. This document discusses the usability of the web based form.

The ABS distributed an 18 page paper questionnaire "Household form", a 20 page booklet and a sealed envelope "Complete your census form on-line" (Item C3). The envelope contained an eCensus number, used along with the number on the census form, for accessing the on-line system at

Web Browser

The ABS advised that the web site was available from Micrsosoft Internet Explorer and the Firefox web browser. However, Firefox 1.5 under Windows XP reported the following message:

The connection was reset:

"The connection to the server was reset while the page was loading.

Firefox error message when attempting to access

The site was accessible using IE Version 6. It was also readable using Opera 8 and the Openwave SDK 6.2.2 mobile phone browser emulator, although ABS did not claim to support these.

The "Technical Help" on the Census web page, advised that Java, JavaScript and 128-bit encryption were required. However, activating these in accordance with the instructions did not enable Firefox to work. A problem is that the help page is located on the same server as the eCensus web form, so any special requirements which stopped the form from being accessed would also stop the user from accessing the help file. Other users reported they were able to access the eCensus via Firefox. The source of the problem was not found and further tests were done using IE.

eCensus Instructions

The Census Form Number is displayed openly on the outside of the census form, which may be left outside the dewlelling by the census collector. Therefore the envelope containing the eCensus number is sealed in an anti-tamper envelope similar to those used by banks to distribute ATM PINs. To access the eCensus system both the Census Form Number and the eCensus number are required. This provideds adequate security.

However, the security of the system will be compromised if the instructions with the eCensus number are followed. These suggest writing the census form number above the eCensus number. As a result the security provided by having two separate numbers is compromised by having them on one piece of paper. This contradicts instructions provided with other such PINs provided by banks, which say not to keep the number in the same as the card.

eCensus Web Pages

The eCensus web pages consist of a home page, help pages, a login page and then a set of pages for the census form. The web pages use HTML 4.01 Transitional, some small CSS files (such as "Master.css"), and according to the header, were generated using the "IBM Software Development Platform". JPEG is used for larger logos and photographs (particularly the "banner", with GIF for small icons (such as for "new window").

eCensus Home Page

The eCensus home page contains an eCensus User Guide, Minimum System Requirements and advise on accessibility for the disabled. There are two options to start the regular and accessible versions of the form. The accessible version of the form is described in the code as the "html version".

eCensus login page

eCensus Login Page

eCensus Accessible login page

eCensus Accessible Login Page

The ABS eCensus home page says: "The eCensus form has been designed and tested following the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines developed by the World Wide Web Consortium". While the W3C guidelines have been techncially followed and the page would pass a formal test, the design is not easy to read. This would make the page hard to understand for those who do not require assistive technology and is likely to have greatly increased the number of calls to the provided telephone support line. The design does not appear to have been tested in a usability lab (or the test results not reported on).

eCensus home page

eCensus Home Page

The page has a banner image at the top containing two logos with text and photographs in JPEG format. Due to the low resolution of the image, and compression, the text in the image is difficult to read. It would be better if the logos (with text and line drawings), had been provided separately from the photographs. The logos could then be in a lossless image format (such as separate PNG or GIF) and the photographs in JPEG. This would make the logos clearer.

eCensus Header Image

eCensus Header Image

The banner image has the ALT text "Australian Bureau of Statistics and eCensus". The use of the word "and" is confusing. Simply "Australian Bureau of Statistics" may be better.

The main content of the page is text and is readable. However, it is formatted for a fixed with screen. At a size large big enough to read comfortably, the text of the page runs off the right hand side of the screen, requiring horizontal scrolling. The page should be formatted so it will wrap to the screen width.

The page is readable in a text-only browser (simulated using Opera 8 in text emulation mode), as it would appear with assistive technology, and was readable on the mobile phone emulator. The visual clutter of the images is eliminated in text only mode (no images) and is reduced on the mobile phone browser (which images are displayed at reduced size). The page is more readable in this format than on an ordinary web browser, as these devised override the fixed page with and wrap the text to fit the screen. Disabled users with assistive technology may find the page more readable, than those using a full screen browser.

The instructions for starting the eCensus form provide two options: an in-line text link "Start Accessible Version", followed by a button "START eCENSUS". It is not clear when looking at the page that these are two mutually exclusive options, as one is inline text and the other a button. The ALT text on the button may add to the confusion by being labelled "eStart eCensus (Non-Accessible Version)".

The only other image on the page is a photograph of a census collector. This has the ALT text "Census Collector", which is accurate but irrelevant. The photo is only decorative and would be better to indicate it conveys no useful information, in accordance with accessibility guidelines.

The accepted approach in web accessibility is to indicate a decorative image with an empty ALT tag: alt=""

The term used for this is "null alt text". A Braille display or talking computer will ignore an image labelled with null alt text. If you don't put in any ALT tag, the system will say something like "IMAGE". So the reader can distinguish between no ALT text and null alt text.

The use of null alt text is being codified in the new Version 2 of the W3C Web Accessibility guidelines.

The eCensus button is followed by text in bold red: "Please do not use the browser navigation buttons.". The words "do not" are underlined but are not a hypertext link. Underlining should not be used as this is confused with links. Large blocks of red text should be avoided as they are difficult to read (this is a problem throughout the eCensus form).

eCensus Translated

Provision of an accessible version of a web page can also provide benefits for other users. One case is for readers of languages other than English. As an example the eCensus web page was successfully translated using the Google translation facility:

home page translated into Chinese

eCensus Home Page Translated into Chinese

However, the actual form pages did not translate:

logon page not translated into Chinese

eCensus Login Page Not Translated into Chinese

eCensus Form

While the eCensus home page has a special option for the accessible version of the form, slecting this option displays a web page little different to the home page and little different to the non-accessible version. The page has the same low resolution image at the top with difficult to read text. It would have been better if these images had been omitted from the accessible version.

There are four bullet points of complex text before the user is promoted for Census form number and eCensus number. This test is presumably intended to reassure the reader about their privacy, but is more likely to confuse them at this point. It would be better if the text was below the fields or in a separate help page.

The text refers the user to the FAQs, but there is no link to the FAQs in the text. Because of the cluttered design of the page header it is difficult to see there is a FAQs link above.

The only difference between the accessible and regular versions of the login page appears to be that the accessible version has one field for entering the census form number, whereas the regular version has the number split into four parts with seven, one, four and one digits. The significance of these groupings in not explained to the user and so could be confusing.

The census form "number" has two check letters in it which will be confusing for the user and are hard to read when hand-written on the form (the author knows of at least one user who had to call the help line to have the caracter codes explained). The eCensus number, while machine printed in a large font, has insufficient spacing between the digits to be easily read. Also it is a very long twelve digit number. In total the user has to enter 25 digits, which is excessive.

Entering an incorrect number penalises the user with an error message and 30 minute lockout from the system:

"Error: Logon failed (code 570). Please wait 30 minutes and try again. If you continue to receive this message, please call the Census Inquiry Service on 1300 651 181 and quote error message number 570 to the Customer Service Representative."

eCensus invalid logon message

The text of the error message is in read, making it difficult to read, and the message does not explain the reason for the login failure. It would be useful if the message expained that the census form number or eCensus number may be incorrect and suggest the user check that characters have been entered in the census form number.

Household Page

eCensus Dewlling Page

eCensus Dwelling Page

After pressing the "Login" button, the next screen "Household Form: Persons Present" is displayed. There was subsecond response of the system, even on a slow broadband connection (126 KBPS). Unfortunatly, as with the home page, it was necessary to scroll sideways to read the text of the form.

The eCensus form displays a set of buttons on the left side of the screen. One button displays "PERSONS PRESEN". The text appears to have been truncated. Another button is labelled "FINISH", but produced this error message:

The following error has occurred in Question 2a: As you have indicated in question 2a that no one is present in the household on Census Night, Tuesday 8 August 2006, you are not required to complete a Census form. Please advise the Census Inquiry Service, by calling 1300 651 181, who will notify the Census Collector in your area.

eCensus no one present message

The correct button to push for temporarly leaving the form is "EXIT" however, that botton is not visable, being off the bottom of the screen. A more logical arrangment would be to reverse these two bottons, with that for the temporary exit being near the top of the screen and the finish button near the bottom.

This error message appears erroneous, confusing the lack of an answer with the answer "none". Also the text of the message was in red, making it difficult to read. After having recieved several error messages consisting of large blocks of red text, the user is likely to be reluctant to continue with using the system.

The elelctronic form is designed to look like the paper version. This is an appropriate design choice for a newly introduced on-line system. However, this causes some confusion. Question 2 asks for a list of persons in the dwelling. The paper form allows space for up to six persons. The elelctronic version has space for only one name. After the name field is a button for "Add Person". However, this button is not for adding the name of the person just entered, but for adding an additional person. Pressing this button results in the error message:

Question 2b: The number of persons indicated in question 2a does not match the number of persons entered in the table at question 2b. Please amend your response to question 2a or enter additional persons in the table at question 2b.

A better option would have been to allow the user to enter persons one at a time, rather than asking how many there were first.

Attempting to delete the blank line generated by the "Add Person" button proved difficult. Using "Delete persons" only gave the option to delete the person entered, not the blank line. Pressing "Back" removed the blank entry, but the average user is likely to be confused by this point.

The elelctronic form is divided into web pages corresponding to data on different topics, such as about the dewelling, persons. The data is saved after each web page, which allows the user to enter some data, leave and return to enter the rest later. However, the status messages provided are confusing. After each page, "Status: Incomplete" in dark red is displayed, follwed by "The Census form has successfully auto-saved." in red. Red is used elsewhere for error messages, but here is used for a positive message. Neither of these messages should be in red and the messages should be far less prominent.

See Also

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